To help the poor, give them money

To prepare children from low-income families for school success, U.S. policy and funding has focused on Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. But research shows that giving more money to low-income parents is more cost effective, he writes.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, which raises the income of  low-income working parents, is more effective than providing free pre-K for four-year-olds, he writes. The chart also shows the modest effects of class-size reduction and Head Start.

Northern European countries focus on supporting family incomes rather than providing preschool or pre-K, writes Whitehurst. “A policy midpoint” could be giving families more money, but limiting it to expenditures on their young children. He envisions something like food stamps.

In Finland, working parents of young children can choose from a variety of child-care providers or “opt to receive a financial subsidy that allows them to reduce their work hours in order to be home more with their child,” he writes. “They can also take unpaid leave.” The rate of enrollment in child-care centers is very low for children under four.

What works in early ed? Not Head Start

Head Start has little or no effect on reading, math or social-emotional development, according to a July 2015 report from the What Works Clearinghouse.

The Clearinghouse rejected most Head Start studies for non-experimental design or because they didn’t assess academic and behavioral outcomes. Only one 2010 study was considered rigorous enough to be reliable.
A new study found female Head Start employees report higher levels of poor health conditions. It compared Head Start participants to children who’d applied but were turned away.  (Sixty percent of the control group enrolled in some form of out-of-home care.) There was little difference in kindergarten or first grade between the two groups.

Head Start grads did slightly better in a “receptive vocabulary” test, suggesting “potentially positive effects on reading.” Head Start grads who’d started as three-year-olds did slightly worse in math.

Both groups were made up of children from very low-income families. By the end of kindergarten, 58 percent of the control group and 55 percent of the Head Start group knew all their letters — compared to 95 percent of U.S. kindergarteners.

Big Bird vs. preschool

Watching Sesame Street appears to help disadvantaged children get off to a good start in school, according to a new study. In the program’s early years, when it wasn’t available in all areas, children who had a chance to meet Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie were less likely to be held back in school.

The effect was stronger for boys, blacks and children living in low-income areas.

Watching Sesame Street was as effective at improving academic readiness as attending preschool, researchers Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney told the Washington Post.

However, preschool teaches important social and emotional skills, they said.

Big Bird can’t close the achievement gap, responds Sam Chaltain. “The problems that beset poor children run a lot deeper than the 30 million word gap,” he writes.

Improvements in school readiness didn’t affect high school graduation rates, college enrollment or success in the job market, the study found. Big Bird’s fans weren’t any more likely to escape poverty as adults.

Of course, fade-out is the primary problem with Head Start. Readiness isn’t everything.

Head Start will move to a full-day, year-round program, reports Ed Central. Tat will be very expensive. The feds want to do less micromanaging — but also want to require more home visiting, higher attendance rates and limits on suspension of children with behavior issues.

Head Start is 50 years old

Head Start got its start 50 years ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. What’s its legacy? asks PBS NewsHour.

The story quotes the head of the Ford Foundation, who was a Head Start kid, but it also includes Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies preschool programs. Federal studies have found Head Start graduates do no better than a control group by third grade, he points out.

They were not better readers. They were not doing math better. They didn’t have better social development. They didn’t have better health outcomes.

It costs $8 billion a year and makes no difference in anything we can measure.

A restart for Head Start?

While Head Start has made some progress, the federally funded program “continues to lack clear, comprehensive goals for program performance,” writes Sara Mead in Renewing Head Start’s Promise: Invest in What Works for Disadvantaged Preschoolers.

In addition, Head Start overemphasizes compliance, requires programs to do too many different things and pays too little attention to curriculum, Mead writes.

While Mead believes Head Start can improve, her report is a devastating critique, writes Checker Finn on Gadfly.

Finn also takes on the idea that funding preschool education in poor countries should be a top United Nations priority. It “costs little and has lifelong benefits by getting children started on learning,” argues Matt Ridley in Smart Aid for the World’s Poor.

“Preschool is not like a polio shot or smallpox vaccination,” writes Finn. “It does not inoculate anybody against anything.”

. . . the right kind of preschool program can give a needed leg up to kids who aren’t getting such preparation at home.

But—and it’s a huge but—it’s only preparation for further education. The further education has to be waiting, and it has to be good education that takes advantage of what was accomplished in preschool.

In the U.S., which has universal elementary education and compulsory school attendance, “whatever boost was provided by preschool fades to the vanishing point during the early grades because the schools themselves fail to sustain it.”

In the Third World . . .

Head Start study: Quality doesn’t matter

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly and disappear by third grade. Advocates say that’s because the quality of Head Start programs varies significantly.

“How much does program quality really impact children’s learning and development in Head Start classrooms? asks Kristen Loschert on EdCentral.

Not much, concludes a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) and follow-up reports, researchers analyzed how differences in program quality influence children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. They found “little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start,” according to the report.

“I was disappointed,” admits co-researcher Stephen Bell. “We’re not really very far ahead in making Head Start better or understanding which variants of Head Start are worth emphasizing now.”

Exposing children to academic activities was considered a mark of a high-quality program. However,  “3-year-olds who received less exposure to academic activities . . . demonstrated better behavior outcomes” through kindergarten.

If even “quality” Head Start programs don’t produce lasting benefits, then why are we spending billions of dollars? Maybe something else — parenting support for single moms? — would make a difference.

Accountability comes to Head Start

Head Start, Meet Accountability, writes Sophie Quinton in The Atlantic. After years of debate about Head Start’s value — are there any lasting benefits? — federal lawmakers want proof the program prepares children for kindergarten. For the first time, providers will have to meet quality and effectiveness measures to retain funding.

Many Head Start and state-run prekindergarten programs aren’t high quality, writes Quinton.

National studies of public pre-K programs have found that children spend most of their time playing, eating, and waiting around, and that instructional quality is generally low. A federal impact study, released in 2012, found that while Head Start children experience initial gains in health, language, and reading skills, those gains usually disappear by third grade. House Republicans use that study to argue that Head Start is a failure and not worth the $8.6 billion taxpayers will spend on the program this year.

Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits will have to compete for funding against other preschool providers.

“Providers must abide by some 2,400 federal standards that dictate everything from how toilets are cleaned to the size of facilities,” writes Quinton. But few programs have lost funding, no matter how poorly they perform.

In the future Head Start providers will have to set goals for preparing children for kindergarten and show they’re taking steps to achieve them.

. . . Programs(must) meet minimum thresholds on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a privately developed tool that assesses how teachers and staff interact with children. CLASS doesn’t measure learning outcomes, per se, but high scores are correlated with better learning.

. . . Monitors use the CLASS tool to rate emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Teachers get high scores for instruction if they seize on teachable moments all day long: asking children questions, responding with more than one-word answers, and introducing new vocabulary words even in casual conversation.

Evaluating preschool quality isn’t easy, reports Education Week. A commonly used preschool evaluation tool doesn’t correlate with better outcomes, according to a study published in the spring 2014 edition of  Education Finance and Quality. The Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale-Revised, which is used by many states to evaluate quality has little connection to the academic, language, and social functioning of children evaluated at age 5, researchers found.

Pre-K dreaming

California Democrats are pushing a bill to require districts to offer pre-K — dubbed “transitional kindergarten” — to all four-year-olds at a cost of more than $1 billion a year, writes Larry Sand in City JournalCosts won’t be offset by greater academic gains or a reduced need for special education, predicts Sand, a retired teacher, who’s president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network . Two words: Head Start.

The federal government released the last of a three-part longitudinal study of the $8 billion-a-year Great Society-era program in December 2012, and the results offered little cause for celebration. According to the report’s executive summary: “[T]here was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group.”

The much-cited Perry and Abcedarian experiments involved “no more than 60 children” 40 years ago, writes Sand.

Russ Whitehurst explains how to evaluate the pre-K research on the Brown Center Chalkboard.

In general, a finding of meaningful long-term outcomes of an early childhood intervention is more likely when the program is old, or small, or a multi-year intervention, and evaluated with something other than a well-implemented RCT (randomized controlled trial).  In contrast, as the program being evaluated becomes closer to universal pre-k for four-year-olds and the evaluation design is an RCT, the outcomes beyond the pre-k year diminish to nothing.

He concludes:  “The best available evidence raises serious doubts that a large public investment in the expansion of pre-k for four-year-olds will have the long-term effects that advocates tout.”

Instead of universal preschool …

Federal early childhood programs are “incoherent” and “largely ineffective,” Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

 The federal government spends heavily on Head Start, Child Care Development Block Grants and other early childhood programs, writes Whitehurst. Head Start produces no lasting gains. CCDBG may harm children, because some end up in low-quality centers, though it helps single parents work or train for jobs.

There’s no evidence state programs do any better, he adds. Researchers compared children in Tennessee’s high-quality Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK) with a control group. At the end of first grade, children who’d had a year of pre-kindergarten performed less well on cognitive tasks and social/emotional skills than the controls.

The long-term benefits of the Perry and Abcedarian pilots 40 years ago can’t be generalized, Whitehurst argues.

The most vulnerable children and their parents need help that starts earlier than preschool, he writes.

 The CCDBG program should be reformed so that the funding stream is part of a reliable and predictable source of support for out-of-family childcare for low-income working parents and so that it provides parents with useful information about their choices of childcare.

Head Start should be sunset, with the funds redirected to the same purpose as the CCDBG program – a reliable and predictable source of support for out-of-family childcare for low-income working parents.

Whitehurst proposes a federal Early Learning Family (ELF) grant modeled on the Pell Grant.  ELF grants would go to parents as a means-tested voucher that could be used at any state-licensed childcare provider.  “ELF grants would replace most present forms of federal financial aid for early learning and childcare, including Head Start and CCDBG, and would place families in the driver’s seat instead of federal and state bureaucracies.”

Whitehurst questions New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s plans for universal pre-K in a New York Daily News op-ed.

Preschool: We don’t know what works

Preschool is not a no-brainer, write University of Virginia professors Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer in a New York Times commentary. Research is murky on how to design preschool programs that help disadvantaged children.

When New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, went to Albany earlier this week to talk about his program for universal preschool, the discussion reportedly focused on funding, not on whether or how preschool would actually help children. President Obama seemed equally confident when he introduced his plan for universal preschool last year, flatly stating, “We know this works.”

Actually, we don’t.

A preschool that “works” could mean different things. It might simply be a safe spot for kids to go. Or it could be a means to get poor kids ready to learn reading and math; they are currently eight to 10 months behind wealthy kids when they start kindergarten. Mayor de Blasio and the president are more ambitious: They think that preschool ought to change life trajectories, resulting in more high school graduates and fewer prison inmates.

Preschool proponents cite the Abecedarian and Perry preschool programs from the 1960s and ’70s, which had long-term benefits. But these were “expensive, intensive” boutique programs that haven’t been replicated.

Preschools in large state programs  show variable results. Head Start, which focuses mostly on social activities, shows “minimal” academic benefits, the professors write. Pushing a kindergarten curriculum into preschool doesn’t work either.

 The preschools that do work teach less well-prepared kids precursor skills, the kind that many wealthy kids learn at home, through activities that don’t look especially academic. Songs and rhyming games, for example, help children hear that words are composed of individual sounds, making it easier to learn how to read letters. Kids gain knowledge about the world — important for reading comprehension in later elementary years — when they are read to by their parents and when they listen to them. Jigsaw puzzles and globes help kids develop spatial skills, which later help with math. Household rules teach children to learn to control their impulses, part of learning self-discipline.

If these skills aren’t being taught at home, it’s hard for a preschool teacher to make up the difference in a few hours a day, they write. “We need a national study . . . beginning at age 3 and continuing through at least second grade” to determine what “works” — and can be replicated.